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Authors: Frances Mayes

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A Year in the World

BOOK: A Year in the World
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To the couple standing in the middle of the autostrada beside their jackknifed camper.

To the mother and two-year-old boy in seats 42 A and B during the ninth hour of flight.

To the family of six crossing Europe in a Deux Cheveaux singing “Blessed Be the Ties That Bind.”

To the small girl screaming on the floor of the trattoria at eleven
P.M.

To K.A.T., who said “Good, now I’ve been and don’t have to go again.”

To the forgotten new yellow panties and bra left drying on the rim of the hotel bathtub.

To the captain diving into waving algae in search of the dropped scuba mask.

To the suitcase that went to India.

To T.A., who couldn’t open the train door and rode on to Castiglion Fiorentino.

To the Southern man limping through Pienza calling to his wife, “I’ve seen all I want to see.”

To the character described by Novalis, who went off to find a blue flower seen in a dream.

To Edward—with you I will go.

Acknowledgments

We found many friends during these travels, and for friendship I am always most grateful. Special thanks to Fulvio, Aurora, and Edoardo Di Rosa, Carlos Lopes, Enver Lucas (Geographic Expeditions), Lori Woods, Susan MacDonald, Cole Dalton, Kate Abbe, Robin and John Heyeck, the Mavromihalis family, Steven Rothfeld, Bernice and Armand Thieblot, Riccardo Bertocci, Maria Ida and Salvatore Avallone of Villa Matilde, Rachid Tabib, Hafid El Amrani, Guvan Demir, and Lina Bartelli. My abiding love to all the writers whose works enriched my travels and stretched my worldview.

Peter Ginsberg of Curtis Brown Ltd., my agent, shares my love of travel, as does Charlie Conrad, my editor at Broadway Books. Both have given me their enthusiasm and expert guidance. I am lucky to work with them, and with their staffs. My thanks also go to Francesca Liversidge at Transworld; Dave Barbor, for international publications; Terry Karydes, for the design of this book; Laura Maestro, for the map of my travels; and my publicists, Joanna Pinsker and Rachel Rokicki. Catherine Pollock and Alison Presley brought their ideas and attention to this book. To Steven Barclay of the Steven Barclay Agency, a grand bacione. May we all toast our travels together soon.

The wild seed of this book took root long ago, and I offer
mille grazie
to my father, who said the family motto should be “Packing and Unpacking,” and to my mother, who always said, “Go.”

Preface

Cupolas
of Alghero

. . . we are words on a journey

not the inscriptions of settled people.

—W
.
S
.
M
ERWIN

The silhouette of Alghero rises from the Mediterranean. My husband, Ed, and I are walking toward town just after noon, when sunlight slips straight through the clean water, rippling the white bottom of the sea with ribbons of light.

“Limpida,”
he says,
“chiara.”
Limpid, clear, the slow tide pushing light in bright arcs across the sandy floor. Alghero, nominally an Italian town on the western edge of Sardinia, has colorful geometric-tiled cupolas, Catalan street names, Arabic flourishes in the cuisine. I feel a sudden attraction to Spain, to exotic Moorish courtyards, fountains that soothed those desert invaders, to the memory of a Latin man who once whispered to me, “Please, share my darkness in Barcelona.” A desire for some fierce, unnameable, dour, and dignified essence of Spain. I imagine walking
there
, along a whitewashed wall, peeling an orange, a book of Lorca’s poems in my pocket.

“I’d like to taste the last drop,” I say, a non sequitur.

Ed is not bothered by non sequiturs. He just picks up on the word
taste
. “We’re going to a trattoria where they specialize in lobster with tomatoes and onions. Sounds delicious—
aragosta all’algherese
—lobster from these waters cooked in the style of Alghero.” He consults a piece of paper where he has written an address. “And yes, I know what you mean.”

“What if we didn’t go home? What if we just kept travelling? The European writers always had their
Wanderjahr
, their year of wandering in their youth. I’d like one of those, even at this late date.”

“Probably better now than when you were young. Where do you want to go?”

“How far
are
we from Spain?”

“I must mention that I have a job.” He points to a hump of land. “Neptune’s Grotto—we’ll take a boat out there after lunch. I would like to go to Morocco,” he adds.

“Greece was the first foreign place I ever wanted to see and I’ve never been.” A map of the world unscrolls in my mind, the one I looked at when I was ten in a small town in Georgia. Bright flags line the sides of the map, and the countries are saffron, lavender, rose, and mint according to their altitude and geology. Sweden. Poland. The Basque country. India. Then I shift into an explosion of images: I’m threading my way through the spice bazaar in Istanbul, assaulted by hot scents rising from sacks of fenugreek, turmeric, gnarly roots, and dried seeds; we’re leaning on the railing of a slow boat when a crocodile splats its tail in the murky green waters of the Nile; Ed is shaking out a picnic cloth as I look into the green dips and curves of a valley punctuated with cromlechs and dolmens; I’m driving past a marsh, russet in autumn light, and I recognize the barrier island off the coast of Georgia, one of the Golden Isles, where I spent summer vacations as a child.

That archipelago was the first place I ever longed for. During the rainy winter months of my childhood, sometimes mercurial sensations of the island came to me in a rush—humid, salty air catches in my hair, the saw palmettos clatter in the torrid breezes of August, and my hand sweats in our cook Willie Bell’s hand as we walk toward a low bridge, where she will lower a crab trap baited with “high” meat into black water. I ached
not
to be in Miss Golf’s first-grade classroom, where the floors smelled of pine oil and sawdust and the little letters followed the big letters in colored chalk around the room. I wanted the firm feel of Willie Bell’s hand, the horror of rotting raw meat in the crab trap, sunrises on the beach, and the long walk back to the house on the crushed oyster shell path.

At six, that sensation was a tide, a rhythm, a hurt, a joy. This powerful
first
sensation of a place I have come to know well because I’ve kept it all my life, just as I’ve kept square thumbnails and insomnia. One of my favorite writers, Freya Stark, acknowledged a similar feeling in
The Valley of the Assassins
: “It shone clearly distinct in the evening light, an impressive sight to the pilgrim. I contemplated it with the feelings due to an object that still has the power to make one travel so far.” Her
it
being anything that pulls us hard enough so that we take the passport from the drawer, pack the minimum, and head out the door with an instinct as sure as that of an ancient huntress with quiver and bow.

The urge to travel feels magnetic. Two of my favorite words are linked:
departure time
. And travel whets the emotions, turns upside down the memory bank, and the golden coins scatter. How my mother would have loved the mansard apartment we borrowed from a friend in Paris. Will I be lucky enough to show pieces of the great world to my grandchild? I’m longing to hold his hand when he first steps into a gondola. I’ve seen his freedom burst upon him on hikes in California. Arms out, he runs forward. I recognize the surge.

 

Sardinia
—the real name: Sardegna. I have wanted to come here since I read D. H. Lawrence’s
Sea and Sardinia
years ago in a blank hotel room in Zurich. “It is a small, stony, hen-scratched place of poor people,” I read. And “In we roll, into Orosei, a dilapidated, sun-smitten, god-forsaken little town not far from the sea. We descend to the piazza.”
We descend to the piazza
. Yes, that’s the sentence I liked. I underlined “sun-smitten” in my paperback book, and as I fell asleep, the noise of Zurich traffic below became these waves I see right now lapping the sea wall.

We have a few days. I will look at all the Moorish tiles. Sample the hard pecorino and goat cheeses. Climb around in the prehistoric village. I will not buy one of the million coral necklaces in the shops. We’ll look for wild medlar and myrtle, asphodel and capers on the hillsides.

Ed shades his eyes with the guidebook. He points. “The boat can drop us out there—see the white crescent beach—after we see the grotto of fabulous stalactites. Let’s eat,” he says.
“Andiamo.”
Let’s go.

 

Travel
pushes my boundaries. Seemingly self-indulgent, travel paradoxically obliterates me-me-me, because very quickly—
prestissimo
—the own-little-self is unlocked from the present and released to move through layers of time. It is not 2006 all over the world. So who are you in a place where 1950 or 1920 is about to arrive? Or where the guide says, “We’re not talking about
A.D.
today. Everything from now on is
B.C.
” I remember the child who came out of a thatched shack deep in the back roads of Nicaragua. She ran to touch the car, her arms thrown up in wonder. She would have looked at the headlights turn on and off all night.

You are released also because you are insignificant to the life of the new place. When you travel, you become invisible, if you want. I do want. I like to be the observer. What makes these people who they are? Could I feel at home here? No one expects you to have the stack of papers back by Tuesday, or to check messages, or to fertilize the geraniums, or to sit full of dread in the waiting room at the proctologist’s office. When travelling, you have the delectable possibility of not understanding a word of what is said to you. Language becomes simply a musical background for watching bicycles zoom along a canal, calling for nothing from you. Even better, if you speak the language, you catch nuances and make more contact with people.

Travel releases spontaneity. You become a godlike creature full of choice, free to visit the stately pleasure domes, make love in the morning, sketch a bell tower, read a history of Byzantium, stare for one hour at the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s
Madonna dei fusi
. You open, as in childhood, and—for a time—receive this world. There’s the visceral aspect, too—the huntress who is free. Free to go, free to return home bringing memories to lay on the hearth.

 

A year
after those, yes, sun-smitten days in Sardinia, we are going off to Spain; then we have a list of places in the world we would like to call home, at least for a while. At twenty, it’s easy to sling on the backpack and take off. Later, you may find the responsibilities that the years layer onto our bodies and souls to be hard-to-impossible to escape. You have to wrench your circumstances to get out from under them. And my home lulls me. The yellow roses on the table, creamy ironed sheets with my mother’s monogram, rabbit with fennel baking in the oven, guests about to arrive, my cat Sister purring against my foot, a sunroom full of books. These profound comforts—the joys of
home
. I’m elated when the Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow starts to bloom, when Ed loads the iron table from the consignment shop on top of the car, and when we cook with good friends—Brunswick stew, cornbread, coconut pie.

The thrown-off remark,
I want to taste the last drop
, will go down in my column of the book kept by the heavenly scribe. How did one sentence send me off into an intense five years of boarding planes, buses, trains, ships? The dream of a travel year became compromised by a complicated life. But the trips, arranged by season, become in this book a single year in the world.

A series of events sharpened my sense of
carpe diem
, making me edgy to go. First a friend’s heart attack, then my mother’s death, then the stunning horror of breast cancer in nine,
nine
, of my closest friends. Two died. Other less drastic forces began to press. Teaching often swamped my writing. I longed for time. Unscheduled time, dream time, quiet time. Not just summers, when it took a month to recover from the exhausting academic year.
Quit
, I thought.

“You could be dead by evening,” I read in Proust. Well, I know that. A potato chip truck can flatten you at any given stoplight—this happened to one friend—but knowledge sometimes slides off and sometimes scores a direct hit. The synergy of our decision to travel sent out sine waves. All fall I looked at maps, saying incredulously, “I always meant to go to Scotland.” I read
The White Nile
,
Journey into Cyprus
, the poems of Hikmet,
Mornings in Mexico
, and all the Victorian women travellers who crossed Patagonia or Kaffirland and refused to lift their skirts over mudholes in central Africa. From Colette I copied in my yellow notebook, . . .
nothing can equal the savor of that which has been seen, and truly seen
, and also her evocative sentence,
I’m leaving tonight for Limousin.

In our
carpe diem
state of mind, we decide to take a big risk and live by our wits. Travel will be tied to a bigger word,
freedom
. We resign from our teaching jobs to work as full-time writers and to explore new possibilities.
Are you crazy? Giving up two tenured university jobs in the Bay Area?
Ed turned in his resignation on Valentine’s Day and came home with three dozen yellow roses. We’re giddy, then scared, then giddy. Imagine—
time
.

 

Everything
I pick up seems to lure me away. Everything I do in my daily life begins to feel like striking wet matches.

The need to travel is a mysterious force. A desire to
go
runs through me equally with an intense desire to
stay
at home. An equal and opposite thermodynamic principle. When I travel, I think of home and what it means. At home I’m dreaming of catching trains at night in the gray light of Old Europe, or pushing open shutters to see Florence awaken. The balance just slightly tips in the direction of the airport.

 

I'm
looking out my study window at the San Francisco Bay, the blue framed by stands of eucalyptus trees. The wind, I imagine, blew across Asia, then across Hawaii, bringing—if I could smell deeply enough—a trace of plumeria perfume. The western sun makes a grandiose exit in the smeared lavender-pink sky—a Mrs. Gotrocks gold orb sinking behind sacred Mount Tamalpais. The bay water, running into the ocean! Washing all the miraculous places. With the force of an earthquake, a wild certainty forms in the center of my forehead. Time. To go. Time. Just go.

 

I asked
an impulsive question,
What if we did not go home, what if we kept travelling?
Should you not listen well to the questions you ask out of nowhere? Only in looking back do you find those crumbs you dropped that marked your way forward.

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